In February, I had a taste of the world’s hottest chilli, the Naga chilli, also called the Bhoot Jolokia in Assam (bhoot for ghost, perhaps a reference to its other-worldly fire).
It was, with no exception, the hottest I have ever tasted.
Hot spots: Smokin’ Beans (above); and the Bhoot Jolokia chilli. Samar Halarnkar / Hindustan Times
What I had really was just a dab of chilli paste, smaller than a child’s teardrop.
It spread a pleasant fire through my mouth, set off little pinpricks on my forehead, and an afterburn that lasted for 15 minutes.
I learnt later that the Naga chilli is so lethal that India’s defence scientists have extracted its nastiest chemicals to make a grenade for anti-terror operations. It won’t kill, but it sure as hell should give some extreme pain to, well, extremists.
No wonder the Guinness Book in 2007 declared the Naga chilli the world’s hottest.
My introduction to the Naga chilli began when I was describing an Andhra fish pickle I picked up in winter from a sweet old Telugu woman in Dilli Haat, the crafts market where you can get handicrafts and produce directly from India’s artisans and farmers.
I had given the fish pickle to one of our office executives, a Haryanvi. He brings me food from home, and I try to reciprocate. We make it a point to tell one another how it turned out.
Curiously, he was silent after the fish pickle.
“Er, it was good,” he said. But his smile had faded, and he had the look of a man trapped into a positive reaction.
“Oh?” I said, frowning.
He confessed. “Actually, it was very, very spicy.”
So I am never again going to ask a Haryanvi to eat a fiery Telugu pickle.
When I narrated this story, my young colleague Monalisa Arthur looked on impassively.
“Have you ever eaten a Naga chilli?” she asked.
I admitted I had not. I did say that my chilli tolerance was pretty high and my stomach well lined with asbestos after growing up in the Deccan—where the food is as hot as the weather—and a lifetime with southern food. And from my Maharashtrian side of the family (my mother is a Shivaji Park girl), I know of mirchi cha thecha, essentially crushed chillies with lime and sundry ingredients. Eat it with a roti and it’s guaranteed to burn your insides.
So I was unimpressed when Monalisa pried open her dinner box: boiled rice, some fish, a leafy veggie—and a tiny, tiny box with the chilli in question (as I said, it was in the form of a paste).
“Nagas cannot do without their chilli,” she said, watching with triumphant satisfaction as I burned my way through the tasting. I was not sure if I’d do this again.
Last week, she handed me a packet of dried chillies. It was the fearsome Naga chilli.
I tried it out that night—not with pork, as it is meant to be, but with beans for my vegetarian wife.
Now, I often do stir-fries at home, snapping 5-6 long normal dried red chillies into the oil. Exhibiting abundant caution, I dropped just one Naga chilli (they’re small, marble sized) into the beans stir-fry.
As I tossed the beans, the little ghost spread its flavour through the wok; a silent, burning smokiness that imbued the beans with fearsome character and taste. Even I—who scrupulously stays away from the vegetables I stir-fry—had to admit that these beans were rocking.
Imagine what it would do to pork. Stay tuned.
And yes, you can buy the Bhoot Jolokia in Delhi. Not in a store but from a couple of enterprising Nagas who keep the supply chain going. Try Sony Pork in Mukherjee Nagar (9811650010) or Thoibi in Munirka (9891729418). Monalisa also tells me there’s a paan shop in Indira Vihar—near Delhi University’s north campus—that “everyone knows”, which sells the chilli.
¼ kg green beans (clean and snap each into two)
2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp sesame seeds
½ tsp black onion seeds (kalonji)
1 Naga chilli
½ tsp garlic paste
1 tsp soy sauce
Set water to boil. When it does, immerse beans for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse in ice water. Heat a little sesame oil in a small wok, preferably not non-stick. Do not smoke the oil. Add sesame seeds and black onion seeds and finally the Naga chilli (do not break!). Add garlic paste when the seeds start to sputter. Fry the garlic paste, increase heat to medium and throw in the beans. Toss to mix well with spices. Add soy sauce. Keep stir-frying; take care not to burn the beans. Now is a good time to remove the Naga chilli (unless you want to really feel its fire). If the wok starts to blacken, don’t panic. Keep stirring. If it gets too much, lift off the flame briefly. Beans should be done in under 10 minutes.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is the managing editor of the Hindustan Times. Write to Samar at firstname.lastname@example.org